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The Story Based Approach

What is story?

I like to define story as follows:

Character + Context + Conflict + Choices = Consequences

That is: a character, placed in a context (setting, circumstance, etc) which typically places their narrative (identity/values – the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, what we are, how we do things, etc) in conflict with other narratives leads to a point where we must make choices (including the choice not to choose) between different avenues of action. That combination of Character, Context, Conflict and Choice results in a consequences, which allow our brains to form a model of our world that is not only informed but reinforced by positive/negative consequences.

This is a formula that is fundamental not just to neurotypical individuals, but also those on the autism spectrum and to those who embody other abnormal neurotypes (schizoid conditions, bipolar, extreme narcissism, and others). The fundamental difference between “typical” self-narrative and “disordered” self-narrative is that the “disordered” mind has limits on its ability to critically regulate the feedback loop that integrates the outcomes of ongoing narrative development into core self-narrative.

With that understood – we can now clearly differentiate between story and its close companion, literature. The difference between story and literature is simple. Story is the what. Literature is the style constructed around story in order to give the act of telling a story merit in its own right.

What does that mean for me?

If you are in a situation where your life is perfect, there is little I can offer you. But the sad fact is, few of us have perfect lives. We continually find ourselves in conflict; which -as hinted at above – is the non-complementary intersection of multiple narratives.

Consider the following fairly common narratives:

  • I would find a good quality restaurant meal highly satisfying.
  • I am saving for a new car.
  • My current car needs new brakes.
  • My electricity bill is due.
  • I am happier when my belly is full of nice food.
  • My friend Kym has been asking me to go out for a steak with them.
  • If I go to a steak restaurant, I might have to catch buses for a week after paying my electricity bill.

Depending on our story of self, we might choose the frugal choice in order to honour mid-term or long term financial commitments; or choose the spend-thrift option (the nice meal) and accept the consequences. The weighting we give to our core identity ends up being the deciding factor on how we go about making the decision to save our pennies or splash out on a $90 steak dinner with a friend.

Understanding this model of human behaviour helps us make good decisions. The example above is an almost trivially simple one, but it provides a clear demonstration of the approach. In our personal lives, we all have opportunities for improvement. But what happens when a whole suite of different narratives is brought into a more complex environment like a workplace? There, we don’t have the luxury of simplicity. Thanks to the industrial approach to work, we all have specialisations that require the construction of and participation in narratives over and above our stories of self. We are employees/bosses. We are leaders/followers. We have detail-orientated or big-picture roles. And these are just a tiny sample of the myriad of narratives we must live up to in the workplace.

Many of these roles are imposed upon us as a condition of our employment. Some are roles we can try to seize opportunistically. The people in the management team that make decisions on behalf of others have to make sense of the complex web of narratives that are imposed on them, and at the same time try to co-opt their subordinates into accept the roles and limitations placed upon them. Organisational leaders can quickly be drowned by the noise created by the hundreds of conflicts (i.e. non-complementary intersections of narratives) that arise dozens of times every day.

How do we manage and mitigate conflict?

There are two broad churches that the responses to this conflict and complexity fall into.

  • One approach is to give into the temptation to manage by dictate – to impose clarity and purpose by liberal use of carrot and stick. Let’s call people that practice this approach as “Managers”. There are a number of problems with this approach, however:
    • If managers place people in roles that do not service their self-narratives (identity/values) then you will find their work will produce more conflict than useful contribution. This is the classic “morale problem” that most managers find themselves in sooner or later.
    • Unmotivated employees will not be productive, regardless of how much carrot or stick one applies. Both situations actually make the situations worse, because an unmotivated employee’s mind will shape carrot into “cynical manipulation” and stick into “objectionable behaviour”. Either way they feel disrespected.
    • This approach CAN work, but it requires absolute commitment to getting an absolute fit between the roles an employee is asked to take on, and the values of the employee concerned. This can be very difficult (and expensive) to achieve – and waiting for the right employee to come along can result in non-productivity in critical roles until the vacancy can be filled.
    • Managers take the internal and external narratives of an organisation and looks for ways to force team members into alignment with those narratives. The rarely consider that there might be flaws in the narratives themselves.
  • The other approach is to find a way to synthesise the narratives of each of the individuals and roles concerned into a complementary whole. We tend to call people who can do this “Leaders” – and they are special for two reasons.
    • Leaders take people with disparate values and find ways to make them work towards a common goal in a way that leaves them feeling like their self-narratives have been fulfilled.
    • Leaders find a way to use the strengths of every team member in a constructive way, whilst helping them to also mitigate and overcome their weaknesses.
    • Both of these outcomes arise out of two great habits that most leaders possess.Firstly – they respect each team member and demonstrate this by listening to and understanding not just what those team members think, but also to who those team members are.Secondly – great leaders find a way to stitch the best bits about every team member into a tapestry that illustrates the story of the business as the sum of the strengths of the whole team. Some of that involves identifying ways to shape the roles that employees play in a way that allows them to exploit their strengths. The rest requires the ability to build a story that the whole team can buy into at the level of their own contribution.

To recap:

Managers are not listeners. They impose an abstract template over the roles they expect individual contributors to fit into without understanding whether that’s even possible.

Leaders are like orchestral conductors. They weave the disparate strengths and “tonalities” provided by each employee into a productive, happy and fulfilled whole.

How can AntipodeYarns Story Consulting help?

I have a structured methodology for evaluating the level of alignment between the self-stories of employees and your organisation’s narratives. At the end of an engagement, you will know the following:

  • Are your internal and external narratives consistent? Are they delivering the kind of engagement that you need from all stakeholders? If not, then why not?
  • Do the narratives relayed to team members at different management strata have a common theme? Are the details of each layer of the organisation’s story consistent with the organisation’s overarching story?
  • Are the people supplying those services committed to doing so effectively and efficiently? If not, why not?

At the end of this process, we can then help you to work through the disconnects, optimise your organisation’s narrative, and envision ways to enrich the overall level of engagement between your organisation and its internal and external stakeholders. As a consequence of this, we should be able to help your business to operate more efficiently, to deliver better products/services to your customers, and to do so in a way that provides enhanced satisfaction to your staff.